On Thursday, 826 Valencia presented A Spelling Bee for Cheaters at the Herbst Theatre, raising over $100,000 for their writing center. I went primarily to cheer on a friend (who ended up finishing second—congratulations Sunil!), not realizing it would be one of the most entertaining nights out I’ve had in a long time.
Individually (usually celebrities) or in teams, contestants raised funds for the ability to cheat during the competition. Only one person from each team competed as a speller. The cheating menu included:
• Try again ($750): Spelled a word wrong? You get to try one more time.
• Ask your team ($1000): Ask your team (or the audience) for their opinion.
• Look it up ($1500): You may consult the dictionary for 15 seconds.
• Free pass ($5000): You may skip to the next round without spelling your word (Adam Savage from Mythbusters used this on putsch).
No cheating was allowed in the final round.
The competition was hosted by some of the creators of the Tony-award winning 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, who provided hilarious color commentary on the words and spellers, including extremely creative model sentences, as for palaestra (a public place in ancient Greece or Rome devoted to the training of wrestlers and other athletes; “What happens in the palaestra, stays in the palaestra.”), Spaniard (a person form Spain; “Billy giggled when he learned the Spaniards were once a world power.”), and kumkum (a powder used for social and religious markings in Hinduism; “Mary, put down that kumkum, we’re Episcopalian.”).
Celebrities included the aforementioned Adam Savage, who made it to the final three, singer Tracy Chapman, who went out on gidgee (a small Australian acacia tree), and authors Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and Michael Chabon—the latter going out on kurdaitcha (an Australian aboriginal word for the emu-feather shoes worn on vengeance missions) after correctly spelling kraal (an Afrikaans and Dutch word for an enclosure for cattle or other livestock) in an earlier round. One celebrity I didn’t recognize was singer Thao Nguyen, who not only correctly spelled evaginate (to turn inside out; “Evaginate.com is not the website you think it is.”), but also sang a song using one of her words, locomotive. I loved her voice and unique style and will definitely seek out her music in the future.
There were certainly a few easy words (cow, jihad, spaniard), words I thought were easy because of French or Italian (oubliette, crepuscule, cenacle), other words I might have gotten through cheating (capybara, astrobleme, kulak), but then a whole lot of “are you kidding me?” words like kurdaitcha that I mostly can’t remember. It was great fun and everybody was a good sport and in good humor. This group has done this gig in other cities, so if it comes to a theater near you, don’t miss it. I also think the cheating concept alone could be scaled down to use as a general fundraiser.